June 15, 2013
Akmal’s Mobile Phone Repairing Training Center
Nahar Plaza, Elephant Road, Dhaka (Bangladesh)
The small classroom that Akmal has now does not represent what his training center used to look like even five years ago. He often refers to that time, when he had a classroom of 30 students and he would teach 4 such classes a day, all jam packed. A list of his graduated students is kept in his personal journal lying on his old desk that still bears the memory of those golden days of his business. Akmal used to be the richest businessman in this market even until 2008. However, the noisy hot air blowers, the rusty hot irons, and the tempered forceps of today’s training center can only tell you a story of a declining mobile repair market in Dhaka, with the rapid growth in the use of cheap Chinese mobile phones. The wear and tear of the walls and the desks, the parsimoniously organized ceiling fans and electric bulbs, and the marks of repairs on the whiteboard reflect the shrinking demands of the electronic crafts that Akmal possesses and teaches others. However, the strict rules that Akmal has always maintained in his classes still remain the same, just like his cordial relationship with his students. New to his 15 years career of teaching mobile phone repair however, Akmal has been getting some female students in his class these days. In our class for example, we have Lina, a 20 year-old Higher Secondary Certificate passed young lady who aspires to get a job in one of the government’s recent projects on women empowerment. Although Akmal has all sorts of arrangements for his students to get hands-on experience in fixing broken phones, he still struggles to fix and maintain the perfect balance between the distance he thinks a female student should maintain from her male colleagues and the collaboration she needs for her work. Lina, on the other hand, does not mind much taking help from his male classmates, but is not willing to do that before Akmal. These tensions are complicated and often evident in the ways Lina and Akmal stare, talk, work, and negotiate on the learning parameters.
Today, students have to work together in pairs on a repairing technique called ‘jumpering’, and Lina and I are in the same group. Akmal, as usual, demonstrates the process first, and explains every necessary detail of it. Now, every group has an assigned motherboard on which they must perform ‘jumpering’. Akmal goes to every group to check if they are having any problems. By the time he reaches our table, Lina and I have already done the first part of the task. We have removed the defective IC and are heating the ends of the copper wire to replace it. Lina is holding the far end of the wire with her forceps, while I am heating the other end with the hot air gun. When Akmal stops by, Lina takes one step back to make a clear distance from me. Akmal asks Lina to leave the far end of the wire to him while I keep on working on the other end. I finish working on my end, and it is now Lina’s turn to solder the far end. As Lina places the wire on the board, I come closer to her to blow the hot air to that end from the gun. Akmal stops me, and takes the gun from my hand. He stretches his arm as much as possible so that he can blow the hot air being at the furthest possible distance from Lina. However, it is difficult for a person to target the air at the right location from that distance. Lina tries a couple of times, but fails to melt her end of wire. Then she takes the hot gun in her one hand, holds the wire with the other, and tries to solder all by herself. Although she succeeds to solder the wire, it is not positioned exactly at the right place. Akmal checks both the ends and thinks for a while. He says to Lina, “Your end is not done well, but I guess you now know how to do this task, right? That is enough.” Lina nods her head, but does not say anything.
As the class ends and the students start leaving, Lina calls me softly and requests me to stay back in the class for 10 more minutes so she can try jumpering again. I agree. I can see Akmal sitting now at the front desk of the training center. He is talking loudly with one of his friends about how new the current mobile market is for him and how helpless he feels about it. I observe that Lina is not looking at him at all. Akmal looks at us once and then ignores. Maybe, like the new mobile market, he also does not know what to do with this burgeoning growth of woman participation in the informal tech markets of Bangladesh.
Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Information Science at Cornell University.